By the way (the joy of parentheses)

April 12, 2022 by Alison Tunley

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Let’s face it, getting side-tracked is all too easy. So it’s not surprising that languages have devised syntactic mechanisms of handling linguistic digression without the reader or listener losing the thread entirely. A sentence might begin with a particular topic, dive off into some additional information (which may or may not be handily marked as supplementary to the main theme using parentheses), before returning to the original subject matter. This week’s blog takes a brief look at the different punctuation options for demarcating ancillary information in written text (yes, including the joy of parentheses).

By the way (the joy of parentheses)

English has three main methods of flagging incidental information or brief topical detours. These are the classic parentheses (or brackets), which also give us the adjective parenthetical, a late 18th century coinage to describe extra information in a speech or piece of writing. Another option for introducing bonus information is the em dash. A pair of these — not to be confused with the hyphen — makes for a bold framing of the parenthetical information, some might say adding a certain panache and emphasis to the relevant text. The third technique for inserting additional information, if you are so inclined, is the common or garden comma.

In addition to these three stylistic choices, supplementary or clarifying information is sometimes inserted in square brackets, particularly inside a quotation, where the punctuation is used to make it clear that this was not part of the original spoken comment. For example: “She [Dorothy] is a big fan of the […] em dash”. Here square brackets are used to insert some explanatory information (the person’s name) and are combined with ellipses to mark a place where some of the original remark (the words “judiciously placed”) was edited out.

Each of these choices for inserting information (or taking a brief diversion!) have their merits. A key thing for translators to remember is that different languages often have particular stylistic preferences, and these may be something to tweak in your translation to make it read well. In my own language pairing of German-English, a regular feature is dealing with the German passion for sub-clauses to make the content sound more natural in English. In general, English readers are less fond of diving off into sub-clauses before returning to the main point, so bracketing information rather than relying on commas may make it easier to follow.

Excessive bracketing — and dramatic em dash asides — can be annoying and disruptive, but when used judiciously they can aid comprehension and help focus the reader’s attention on key content. As Richard Whately so eloquently put it, “The censure of frequent and long parentheses has led writers into the preposterous expedient of leaving out the marks by which they are indicated. It is no cure to a lame man to take away his crutches.” (has the joy of parentheses reached YOU yet?)

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